OPINION: The problematic stigma associated with mental illness

Approximately one quarter of the population age 18 and older has a diagnosable mental illness (Photo by John Irwin).
Approximately one quarter of the population age 18 and older has a diagnosable mental illness (Photo by John Irwin).

Think back to a time in your life when you were emotionally distressed. Maybe your romantic partner broke up with you, or maybe you were the subject of nasty rumors or bullying; maybe you were having trouble coming up with money to pay your tuition only a month before the deadline. What sort of emotions were you experiencing then? Were you sad, angry or did you feel lonely, helpless, hopeless? If so, what played the biggest role in helping you through that difficult period?

Chances are it was the support of a friend or someone else in your life to whom you felt close. But imagine if you weren’t able to speak up about your problems for fear of being judged or encountering discrimination. Imagine how alone you might feel.

This is the unfortunate reality that many students with mental illness face every day.

According to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2005, approximately 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The average age of onset of most mental health disorders occurs within the 18-24 age cohort—which encompasses many of us here at Mason. Yet a study published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2012 found that only 40 percent of college students with a diagnosable mental health condition sought professional help.

Let’s do the math: during the 2012-2013 academic year, Mason had a total enrollment of 32,961 students.  According to the 1 in 4 statistic mentioned above, approximately 8,240 of these students had a mental illness. This means that nearly 5,000 students at Mason with a mental illness were not seeking help for their condition. And keep in mind that these individuals we’re citing statistics about are not like the patients portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; they are the people you stand in line behind in the JC food court, they are your classmates, they are your friends. And they are suffering in silence.

Why? Because of the stigma associated with mental illness. The World Health Organization defines stigma as “a mark of shame, disgrace or disapproval which results in an individual being rejected, discriminated against and excluded from participating in a number of different areas of society.” Every time we tell someone with depression to “perk up” or to “just get over it,” or when we refer to the homeless man we passed by in DC who was talking to himself as “crazy,” we are perpetuating these stigmas against mental health issues and creating an environment in which students suffering feel ashamed and afraid to ask for help.

So this is where you and I come in. In honor of Active Minds’ National Day Without Stigma on October 7, I ask that you reconsider how you talk about mental illness and start educating yourself about the various mental health disorders. The weather in NOVA is not “so bipolar”; it’s erratic. A student is not schizophrenic—they have schizophrenia. And they are certainly not crazy. And no one with a mental illness is weak. Mental illness is not a choice and no one should be blamed or made to feel inferior for having one.

We must stop judging others’ emotional experiences and start listening. We cannot take the place of the professional services that these students require, but we can help form a supportive atmosphere that encourages our peers to seek help when they need it. We need to let them know that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to speak out and reach out. And it’s time to start talking seriously about mental health.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication.   

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